Self domestication and the evolution of language

James Thomas, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We set out an account of how self-domestication plays a crucial role in the evolution of language. In doing so, we focus on the growing body of work that treats language structure as emerging from the process ofcultural transmission. We argue that a full recognition of the importance of cultural transmission fundamentally changes the kind ofquestionswe should be asking regarding the biological basis of language structure. If we think of language structure as reflecting an accumulated set of changes in our genome, then we might ask something like, "What are the genetic bases of language structure and why were they selected?" However, if cultural evolution can account for language structure, then this question no longer applies. Instead, we face the task of accounting for the origin of the traits that enabled that process of structure-creating cultural evolution to get started in the first place. In light of work on cultural evolution, then, the new question for biological evolution becomes, "How did those precursor traits evolve?" We identify two key precursor traits: (1) the transmission of the communication system throughlearning; and (2) the ability to infer thecommunicative intentassociated with a signal or action. We then describe two comparative case studies-the Bengalese finch and the domestic dog-in which parallel traits can be seen emerging followingdomestication. Finally, we turn to the role of domestication in human evolution. We argue that the cultural evolution of language structure has its origin in an earlier process of self-domestication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-30
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number1-2
Early online date27 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • self-domestication
  • culture evolution
  • language evolution
  • cultural transmission


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